How ethical is vintage fashion?

The popularity of vintage fashion is easy to understand, and there are many reasons for wanting to have at least some vintage pieces in your wardrobe. It appeals to the collector, to the ethically minded and, perhaps more traditionally, the thrifty.

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Before the 1950s and 60s, there was no vintage clothing market. Old clothes were just old clothes, bought only by those who couldn’t afford to buy new in the world of the pawn shop and the hand-me-down. There has always been a trade in rags – and until relatively recently, the rag and bone man was a fixture on the streets of most towns and cities. And even at the one-man-and-his-cart level, the fabrics collected would be sorted. Good quality clothing would be sold on to be re-worn, whereas items no longer fit for clothing could be sold as rag. Even the most threadbare could be sold on for use in a variety of industries including rag paper making.

The number of rag merchants has declined since their heyday in the 19th century, and like so many industries, has become much more centralised and operating on a much grander scale.

Vintage can be the most ethical way to shop, and is at the zenith of slow fashion. Incorporating pre-worn clothes into your wardrobe prevents them going to landfill, and we should always be looking to reuse, recycle and repurpose goods that have any kind of life left in them. It also reduces the need for the manufacture of new fibres, consuming both natural raw materials and petrochemical based manmade fibres which carries considerable environmental impact even before you add in the additional processes of dyeing, finishing and the need for factories.

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It is worth considering the channels by which vintage clothes reach you, as this may seriously damage their ethical credentials. The trade in second hand textiles is now a global market, and much clothing within the rag trade is bought and sold by the kilo. Secondhand clothing and fabric is just a commodity like any other, and it’s here that the business model starts to resemble fast fashion. International traders dealing in huge quantities, crossing the globe to satisfy a consumer demand. One trader in the United States is reported to sort 35 tonnes of printed T-shirts every day and dispatches nearly 8 million kg of vintage clothing every year. That vintage jacket you fancy starts to carry quite a carbon footprint.

Buy well, buy only what you know you will wear until it falls to pieces, pieces that you love and that love you, if possible buy quality pieces in good fabrics that can be worn and will look even better as they age.

For those who just can’t bear to wear something fresh off the sewing machine, there are some classic pieces still being made like Pendleton shirts and Levi’s jeans. They will give you that classic look, and taken care of, they’ll serve as a staple in your wardrobe for many years and will never go out of fashion. They’re classics for a reason.

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There are many reasons to buy vintage – the quality tends to be superior, vintage clothing was built to last, vintage garments are unique – you’re unlikely to meet anyone else wearing the same item. Also, each piece has its own story – whether it’s the origin of the garment or where you sourced it, vintage clothes offer a far more interesting answer to that standard question “where did you get your dress?”

If you choose to buy vintage then it makes sense to carefully look into where you buy clothes from. If you are buying from an aesthetic viewpoint then it pays to know how to identify cuts, fabrics, sewing techniques and styles from bygone eras. When anything older than five years can be labelled vintage, it is easy to get duped into buying recent preworn clothing at vintage prices.

If you have chosen to go vintage because of the ethical credentials, then it is worth your while going to local dealers who can tell you the origin of each piece. If your vintage attire has been shipped across the ocean, carrying with it a large carbon footprint and a lot of rag that is heading for landfill then you are clearly supporting an unethical practice. With a little research and thought, you can avoid these sorts of purchases.

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It is also worth restricting the number of items you have in your wardrobe. Limit yourself to a strict one-in, one-out policy, if something isn’t getting worn then pass it on to charity or a friend. To fully embrace the vintage mentality (and for a far more ethical approach) you might consider learning to repurpose clothing. Customise your outfits with simple embellishments and tailor the fit to suit your shape to ensure that you get the maximum wear from each piece. You might even go on to start creating your own clothes, this will give you a greater appreciation for clothing as you understand more about manufacturing processes and how clothes work.

If you choose to go vintage it is worth putting a few gentle rules in place. Firstly, only buy items that you absolutely love. If something doesn’t suit your shape, or you only intend on wearing it once then it isn’t especially ethical. It can be hard to resist the lure of inexpensive, unusual pieces but if you don’t intend on getting your wear out of a piece then simply don’t take it home.

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Fast fashion is designed to be disposable. Based on trends that fade quickly each item is not intended to stay in our wardrobes and this is often clear from the cheap manufacturing processes. All ethical clothing is about story. Vintage garments can carry stories that span back several decades, but more contemporary slow fashion items also come with their own narrative. Good ethical retailers will know exactly where their clothes are produced and can track the whole process. This can give us a real feeling of connection with items of clothing, and through wearing them we can also weave our own lives through the fibres of each piece. So whether you go for genuine vintage or clothing that is timeless, classical and set to stand the test of time – slow fashion comes with a story, making each garment in our wardrobe a piece of art – a costume that connects us with the greater global narrative.

This article first featured in the January 2018 edition of Natural Mumma Magazine.

Words and pictures by Gerard Hughes.

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